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René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle
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René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

Robert Cavelier de La Salle (November 22, 1643 - March 19, 1687) was a French explorer. He explored the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. He was responsible for the launching of the first actual ship on Great Lakes waters, the Le Griffon.

La Salle was born in Rouen and was probably briefly a member of a religious order. In 1666, La Salle was granted land in La Chine in New France where he settled. He led his first expedition in 1669. His travels on this occasion are unclear; he may have reached the Ohio River but not the Mississippi which Louis Joliet discovered in 1672. In 1674, he established Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario as part of a fur trade venture. The fort was named for La Salle's patron, Louis de Baude Frontenac, governor of New France. La Salle then travelled to France that year to establish his claim and procure royal support. With the help of Frontenac's influence, he received not only a fur trade concession with permission to establish frontier forts but also a title of nobility.

In 1678, La Salle set out on Le Griffon and sailed up Lake Erie to Lake Huron and then down Lake Michigan. On November 1, he built a fort at the mouth of the St. Joseph River in current Michigan and waited for a party led by Henri de Tonty who had crossed the peninsula on foot. Tonty arrived on November 20 and on December 3 the entire party set off up the St. Joseph which they followed until the reached a portage to the Kankakee River. They followed the Kankakee to the Illinois River. He established Fort Crevecoeur on the Illinois River. After establishing the fort, LaSalle set off on foot for Fort Frontenac for supplies. While he was gone, Louis Hennepin followed the Illinois River to its junction with the Mississippi but was captured by a war-party of Sioux and carried off to Minnesota. The soldiers at the fort mutineed, destroyed the fort and ran out Tonty who La Salle had left in charge. La Salle captured the mutineers on Lake Ontario and eventually found Tonty at Mackinaw.

La Salle canoed down the Mississippi River in 1682, naming the Mississippi basin Louisiana in honour of Louis XIV. In 1683, on his return voyage, he established Fort Saint Louis at Starved Rock on the Illinois River to replace Fort Crevecoeur.

He led an expedition to establish a French colony on the Gulf of Mexico in the Mississippi delta. La Salle left France in 1684 with 4 ships and 300 colonists to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The expedition was plagued by pirates, hostile Indians and poor navigation. One ship was lost to pirates in the West Indies, a second sank in the inlets of Matagorda Bay where a third ran aground. They set up Fort Saint Louis, near Victoria, Texas. La Salle led a group east on foot to try to locate the Mississippi; however, during the search his followers mutinied and he was murdered near Navasota, Texas. The colony lasted only until 1688 when local Indians massacred the 20 remaining adults and took 5 children as captives.

The LaSalle automobile brand and many places were named in his honor (see La Salle for a list of places, most of which were named after him).

See also: French colonization of the Americas.

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You might be looking for: Jean-Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719), Catholic saint, teacher and educational reformer.